24 May 2018

Memories of Detention


Do you know

what love is



You took me

whilst my baby slept.

And she’s as beautiful as yours

loves as yours

but you took me,

took love

when you had yours.



Do you know

What love is?


When I saw them,

my Phello and Gakearesepe sleeping

the day when your released me,

White man, dear God,

You owe me for life

ten months of love to my daughters,


And also

you have taught me

to hate.

4th after detention. 3:30 a.m.

By Molefe Pheto – poetry for the struggle. c.1977

Southern Africa Collective, (1977) Southern Africa, Vol 10. No 10, pp.1-21.


Often as historians we get immersed by the facts and numbers that one forgets about the emotional toll that is felt by those who were incarcerated and the effects on their families. This poem was in a publication that was accessioned as part of The Netherlands Institute of Southern Africa (NiZA) Collection (AL3293) by the SAHA archival team.  This poem illustrates the anguish and pain in a way that no book can.

Within this periodical there was also included a list of deaths in detention in the preceding two years. The period 1960 to 1994 saw the systematic and extensive use of detention without trial in South Africa. Such detention was frequently conducive to the commission of gross abuses of human rights, including death.

SAHA conducted a project as part of The Sunday Times Heritage Project (AL3282) on detention without trail at John Vorster Square. These transcripts give a further insight into the experiences of political prisoners during the apartheid years.